SA Chinese and the question of identity

2009-03-04 00:00

Though outsiders may see the Chinese community in this country as one homogenous mass, it clearly is not. “SABCs” or South African-born Chinese are not, as many people think, descended from indentured mine-workers, convicts, slaves or artisans. They are the descendants of independent immigrants who arrived in the country from 1870 onwards. They originate from two areas about 400 kilometres apart in South China that did not enjoy a cordial relationship. The immigrants brought different languages and customs with them as well as these strained relations.

Park traces the history of the Chinese community’s relations with the apartheid state and describes successive generations as “shopkeepers”, “fence-sitters” and, lastly, “bananas” — yellow on the outside and white inside. Even with distance and time, the human rights abuses perpetrated by apartheid make for disturbing reading. At the same time, however, I was constantly reminded of the words of a Westerner who lived in China for many years: “They see themselves as members of a superior 5 000-years old civilisation, they function off that base and let you know it too.”

Although this work has a narrow focus, it is a thought-provoking exploration of the nature of identity, which, as a social construct, is as fascinating a topic as the book’s subjects themselves.

Park is a Korean American living in South Africa. This book is based on her doctoral research so it’s not a light read. However, if you are interested in the history of the Chinese community in South Africa, or the question of identity, or both, it is a worthwhile read.

Julia Denny-Dimitriou

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